Home' Work Boat World : October 2016 Contents Call of the wild
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
Cruise companies, without a doubt, are keen students of
human nature and have long capitalised on our delight in
“one-upmanship”, offering voyages to ever more exotic places.
This enables them to increase the prices of their cruises,
knowing that people wishing to impress their friends and
neighbours will be prepared to pay more for the privilege of
being able to bore their dinner guests with accounts of their
But where do you go when there are few places that have not
been probed by National Geographic and, the BBC cameras, guided
by Sir Richard Attenborough? It is why “adventure” cruising has
really taken off, with small ships laden with their discriminating
guests appearing in small archipelagos and remote islands up in
the high latitudes, where once only bold fishermen, whalers and
sealers would have been seen.
When the unexpected happens
Occasionally things go wrong, such as a small cruise ship
actually sinking in the Antarctic, another catching fire and yet
another stuck in ice, requiring the expensive attention of more
suitable ships to get their passengers to safety.
A number have seen their cruises terminated with an enormous
boarding green wave breaking the wheelhouse windows and
wrecking all the electronics. Others have verified the warnings
contained in the charts about the paucity of reliable soundings
and have impaled themselves on rocks nobody had
It won’t stop people setting off to these exotic places and one
can imagine after one has been airlifted back from South Georgia
or Patagonia and lavishly compensated to boot, one will be able to
hold dinner guests enthralled for years about the experience.
With the market expanding for this sort of experience (the
cruising, not the emergencies), bigger ships are heading to more
extreme places with very many more people on board.
Going to extremes
This northern summer has seen a largish cruise ship with more
than 1,500 embarked making a transit of the Northwest Passage.
This was a “conventional” (albeit top-of-the-r ange luxury) vessel
accompanied, as a precaution, by a powerful icebreaker and as an
historic jaunt, the passengers should be well-satisfied with their
successful transit of a route that has been the death of very many
explorers and mariners in earlier times.
They would need a sense of occasion, as in terms of the scenic, a
bleak, windswept, rock-strewn shore with the odd polar bear
thrown in for light relief would not be everyone’s choice of
holiday destination. But the pleasure will come from those future
Their voyage coincided with reports from satellites suggesting
that the whole transit was largely and helpfully ice-free, w hich
might seem a bit of an anti-climax for somebody who was
expecting a reprise of the Sir John Franklin experience. You can
imagine a cheerful Inuit trader selling his carved narwhal tusks and
dried walrus skins saying, “...you need to come back in winter if
you want the real Arctic experience!”
Money buys luxur y
There is an appetite for this sort of cruising and it is seeing some
purpose-built ships being constructed. The crème de la crème will
be a quartet of Norwegian Hurtigrute coastal cruise ships, as they
have found that exactly the sort of experiences provided on the
Norwegian Coastal Express service do very well indeed elsewhere
in the world. There are even super yachts being built with massive
ice strengthening and suitable horsepower to take the even richer
to the highest of high latitudes.
There are still real worries about the safety of these people, who
are not the hardy souls of historic polar exploration, happy to eat
their boots when the dogs had been consumed, but folk of more
mature years, who are, to put it politely, altogether softer.
They will also be a lot more prone to litigation in the event that
all is not to their satisfaction. But to the chagrin of the scientific
community, most of whom like to think that they have exclusive
rights to the more challenging parts of the earth, safety fears won’t
stop the paying passengers coming.
The need for a Polar Code
It will be one reason for the International Maritime
Organisation’s new Polar Code, and ample justification for
ensuring that there are proper contingency plans that will protect
both the ships and the environment. It is one thing for a small
expedition ship with a couple of hundred embarked to be stuck in
ice or broken down. With ships carrying 2,000 plus souls, it is
another scale of operations we are considering in remote waters.
The Norwegian rescue services have well-developed plans to
deal with big-ship emergencies, involving air dropped equipment
and the use of the ice sheet itself as a refuge for the shipwrecked.
The effectiveness of such a rescue operation has yet to be proved
and the Norwegians themselves note that the weather in the polar
seas is rarely benign.
It may be just a coincidence, but at the same time as the large
cruise ship was making its Northwest Passage transit, the United
States Coast Guard, along with Alaskan Command, the Alaskan Air
National Guard, Royal Canadian Air Force and many other
agencies were running a major Arctic rescue exercise.
The drill was centred on an incident in the Bering Strait
involving one of the adventure cruise ships with 290 passengers
and crew embarked. Cutters, fixed wing and helicopters were all
involved with local and regional emergency services. Realism is
important in these exercises and much was learned. There is still
the nagging question about a similar incident, but with 10 times
the numbers involved.
8 October 2016 WORK BOAT WORLD
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